For as long as app-based gig labor platforms have existed, access to bathrooms has been a huge concern for workers pressed for time to make ends meet. These concerns have only grown worse as employers adopt gig economy practices and as COVID-19 intensifies demand for food delivery nationwide.
Given the rhetoric from well-to-do communities dependent on gig work before and during the pandemic honoring essential workers, it may come as a surprise that one community board in Manhattan’s Upper West Side had nothing but venom for a relatively innocuous suggestion during a community Zoom meeting last week that was spotted by Streetsblog New York: to pass a non-binding resolution encouraging restaurants to let delivery workers to use their bathrooms.
"This is an example of how we as a society take some of our essential workers for granted and unintentionally treat them as something less than human. We're completely ignoring whether or not our delivery workers have a place to perform an essential human function,” Community Board 7 Transportation Committee member Ken Coughlin, who introduced the resolution, began. "They're risking their lives for us, literally, so we don't have to over the past year. So we can order in without having to go to a store or a restaurant and I think they deserve better. I think we need to start treating them as if their lives and their working conditions matter and I think bathroom access is as good of a place as any to start.”
Coughlin was describing one of the most consistent concerns raised by workers on gig platforms, but also in workplaces that adopt gig work labor practices such as Amazon: that time spent using the bathroom translates to time spent not earning money, dangerous in a line of work that can often pay a sub-minimum wage.
The resolution pointed out that because the city has few public restrooms, delivery workers have "few if any legal options to relieve themselves or wash their hands" during an ongoing pandemic. As such, it asked that restaurants in the district either allow delivery workers unrestricted use of restrooms or have their refusal to do so noted for when the restaurant later asks for community board support when applying for a liquor or sidewalk cafe license.
Fellow board members were aghast at the suggestion, questioning whether it was even worthy of discussion and saying voting on the remedy would be “crazy.”
Board member Lina Alexander berated Coughlin multiple times for failing to consider how complex the issue was, insisting that he was not considering the perspectives of stakeholders like “overwhelmingly senior citizen” patrons, a lack of public facilities, or the classification of workers as “independent contractors” rather than employees.
“There's so many issues here that you're just kind of conflating here and making it a simple 'Oh the bad restaurants aren't letting them in,'” Alexander said. “If we want to provide services, I think it should be up to the restaurants that have the facilities, that have the staff, and give them an opportunity to volunteer and then reimburse them for the extra costs that are going to be faced cleaning them especially with the COVID protocols.”
She went on to dismiss Coughlin’s resolution as an attempt to “penalize” restaurants with “punitive” measures that would hurt small businesses, and proposed looking into a fund that would pay restaurants for letting gig workers use their restrooms.
Josh Cohen is another board member who insisted it was "a larger issue" while also somehow wondering if it was even an issue to begin with, saying that voting on it would be “crazy” without consulting business owners for “evidence” that it is a problem.
When Howard Yaruss, one of the only members sympathetic to the resolution, tried to propose an amendment that would strike the last paragraph mentioning liquor licenses, other members on the call grew even more belligerent and doubled down on doubt about whether gig worker access to bathrooms was as serious a problem as Coughlin and his resolution suggested.
"I was just thinking of whatever leverage we have as a community board," Coughlin explained when pressed by the board as to why he would violate restaurants’ apparently God-given right to have a liquor license. "We do this in the case of bike lights or vests or restaurants, I know that BCI has regularly asked applicants ‘Do you have bike lights for your delivery guys and vests and bells’ and I believe you've been willing to withhold approval if they don't."
At one point, Coughlin appeared shocked by what he was hearing and said, "You would think we are talking about a different kind of human being.”
It’s important to emphasize that this was a non-binding resolution. Nothing in the text would’ve actually forced restaurants to allow workers to use their restrooms, nor would it have guaranteed punishment. Instead it could be seen as an advisory statement, suggesting that we take seriously the humanity of gig workers and let them perform a basic human function, especially when these gig workers were what were keeping the restaurants alive during the pandemic.
The board’s reaction is instructive, however. The gig economy has proliferated partly because these companies have subsidized their operations will billions of dollars, have lobbied for exemptions and exceptions to labor and antitrust law across the country, and have successfully mobilized their users to intervene when regulators and politicians seem poised to erect barriers to growth. It has also proliferated thanks to people like those on the community board, who insist simple issues are incredibly complex while ignoring the plight of workers, especially ones that are often invisible like delivery people.
During the meeting, the community board members time and time again insisted it wasn’t their place to regulate restaurants on this front, even though they already play a role in a significant number of regulations concerning restaurants. It’s not clear why ensuring a delivery person keeping a restaurant alive gets to use a bathroom should be seen as less important than health codes or occupancy standards―unless we don’t care about whether workers can make ends meet.